If you had to pick a celebrity for your baby to look like, who would you choose? A brunette Aaron Carter with brown eyes? A young Josh Brolin? Ben Affleck? What if I said your Brolin baby probably wouldn't be that tall, because the donor was only 5'11. Would that put you off? Would you go for Affleck instead?
It sounds like a Margaret Atwood novel for the MailOnline generation, but this isn't fiction. Nowadays, you can pick potential donor sperm based on which Hollywood A-lister you'd like your child to resemble. You might not be able to have the real Ryan Gosling's babies, but you can have the next best thing: An anonymous sperm donor who looks like him.
The global sperm donation industry is booming. Cryos International, a for-profit organization that runs the world's largest sperm bank, now delivers to more than 80 countries globally, employs 61 people, and estimates that it has been responsible for the births of up to 70,000 children. In the US, reports estimate that around 30,000 to 60,000 children are born yearly through sperm donation. The true figure may well be much higher, as the US fertility industry isn't required to report on how many children are being born each year.
Shifting social paradigms—greater acceptance of lesbian couples wanting to have children, career women delaying pregnancy and suffering fertility issues, single women deciding to have children on their own—have all contributed to a lucrative international industry. In the UK, figures from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) show that there was a 24 percent increase in the number of lesbian couples undergoing donor insemination in one year (2010-2011).
Denmark is the epicentre of the donor sperm market. According to one report, the Danish "fertility cluster" turned over 1 billion Danish krone ($152m) in 2012, with the value of exported goods and services estimated at 700 million krone ($105m) in the same year. One-third of all the sperm imported into the UK is of Danish origin.
The Danish sperm industry started back in the 90s, with so-called "stork clinics", usually run by midwives, that specifically catered to single women. As the market developed and demand increased—initially from heterosexual couples with fertility issues—Danish clinics began to adopt a more professional approach in line with the US, where the industry was already well established. Amongst various marketing tropes, the idea of the "Viking baby" emerged—characterized by the supposed virility of Danish men, and their unusual willingness to donate sperm.
Annemette Arndal-Lauritzen, CEO of the Copenhagan-based European Sperm Bank, estimates there are up to a thousand Danish men regularly donating sperm every week, out of a population of 1.3 million in areas where sperm banks are located. I asked Arndal-Lauritzen why her countrymen are so unusually willing to donate sperm. She made reference to Denmark's history of sexual liberation—it was the first country to legalize pornography— and highlighted the fact that Danes are uncommonly altruistic, with some of the highest blood and organ donation rates in Europe.
I didn't want to just have a one-night stand and trick someone into being a father who didn't want to be a father. It was the moral aspect, really, for me.
Cryos International founder Ole Schou agrees, explaining, "In Denmark, we share everything." Schou's company was the first sperm bank in his country and is now one of the biggest in the world—it had 464 donors on its books at the time of writing. One thing's certain: the Danes are definitely not doing it for the money. Danish donors are only paid around $45 per donation. Not bad for whacking off, but still not enough to get you out of bed, make you fill out an extensive family history form, and get down to a clinic every week.
Potential US sperm donors (mostly) aren't getting off for the warm, fuzzy feeling of helping a childless family. They get paid the old-fashioned way: A respectable $125 per donation. Scott Brown of California Cryobank, one of the major US facilities, told me that his company targets college students on Facebook, Craigslist, and in college newspapers "trying different taglines to see what works when marketing to people."
So who's buying Viking sperm? Everyone, basically. Schou told me that Cryos exports about 96 percent of its sperm internationally, while the European Sperm Bank told me that its customers are "essentially all over Europe, then outside of Europe we're talking South Africa, Australia. We would like to get into the Asian market, but the regulation isn't really there. Europe has been much better in terms of deregulating enough to let the industry grow."
Laws around sperm donation vary widely. Relaxed regulations in Denmark and the US—in both countries you can donate sperm anonymously, which vastly increases the donor pool— mean that both countries are generally able to meet the growing native and international demand for sperm. However, not all demand is currently being met.
If you're a tall college grad from an ethnic minority background, your sperm is particularly prized. According to California Cryobank, Japanese and African-American donors are incredibly rare in the US and are eagerly sought-after as potential donors. In Europe, Arndal-Lauritzen told me that "Muslims don't donate sperm due to their religion [where it is a sin to masturbate], so it's really difficult to get hold of their sperm." But not everyone has what it takes to become a sperm donor. As Arndal-Lauritzen clarifies, "Only 5 percent of applicants to donate sperm are accepted due to issues with sperm quality, genetic diseases or other health-related issues. Which makes it even more difficult to find minority sperm [given that Denmark is not an ethnically diverse country]."
Listening to the men talk about how they want to give the gift of life to a woman who wants to be a mother was really emotional for me, actually.
Meanwhile in the UK, the HFEA, which regulates the industry, has been criticized for aggressive policies that curtail the sperm donor pool—namely, limiting the amount of offspring allowed from one donor to ten children, and prohibiting the use of anonymous donors. This, coupled with the relative stigma around sperm donation in the UK, and practical difficulties in terms of how you donate sperm (such as limited opening hours for clinics), has contributed to a crisis within the native UK sperm donation industry.
In August this year, the chief executive of the UK's national sperm bank was forced to admit that they only had nine registered sperm donors. I spoke to Professor Allan Pacey, a leading UK fertility expert, who told me that the UK imports around one-third of the sperm we use. This comes amid unprecedented demand for donor sperm in the UK and abroad—leading more and more women to import Viking sperm from Danish clinics.
Curious to see what was driving women to have Viking babies, I interviewed Katie*, a 38-year-old communications worker from near Leeds, England, who is currently in the process of buying donor sperm from Denmark. Under current European Sperm Bank rates, she will pay up to 429 euros for the sample. "My mum sent me an article about sperm donation, and I read it and thought, Yeah, I'd like to do this. I'm 38, my relationship just ended, and this is the right solution for me to have children."
"I wanted to do it properly, I didn't want to just have a one-night stand and trick someone into being a father who didn't want to be a father. It was the moral aspect, really, for me. If you want to be a parent you should actively make that decision. That's why sperm donation became an appealing option for me at this point in my life."
The information that Danish sperm banks provide about prospective donors—you can listen to their voices, read about their childhood dreams, and even see their baby photos—helped Katie feel more connected to her donor. "I spent a lot of time on their website, even so far as listening to the voices of potential sperm donors, and the level of information and detail kind of blew my mind. Listening to the men talk about how they want to give the gift of life to a woman who wants to be a mother was really emotional for me, actually."
After speaking with Katie, I browsed a couple of donor websites looking for a father for a hypothetical child I'm not ready to have, and things got kind of intense. After much deliberation (shouldn't I try and have a mixed-race baby because I'm mixed-race? Don't I need to find someone with perfect eyesight because everyone in my family is basically blind?) I finally settled for "Noller," only because his personal message choked me up a bit (excerpt: "Modesty is overrated, you have to fight for your dreams, and appreciate the victories as they come.")
If you screened for everything, you'd end up with no donors, because we've probably got something wrong with us all, somewhere.
Unsurprisingly for a multi-million dollar industry, there are checks in place to minimize the risk that a donor passes on a genetically transmitted disease to a child. However, there have been horror stories in the past, including one sperm donor who did not disclose his medical condition—a rare heart defect that could have proved fatal if untreated— to some 24 offspring. In April, a Danish donor sparked an international panic after potentially passing on an incurable genetic disease to the 99 babies he fathered.
"If you screened for everything, you'd end up with no donors, because we've probably got something wrong with us all, somewhere," Professor Pacey said. Sperm banks screen for the most common genetic diseases, as well as looking at the donor's family history. I asked Arndal-Lauritzen what would exclude you from being a donor: What if your grandma had breast cancer? She told me that having one grandmother with breast cancer wouldn't exclude you, but another family member with the condition—like an aunt—would rule you out. Professor Pacey also spoke of the importance of having a system of surveillance in place, so if a baby is born with a medical condition such as a heart defect, use of that donor sperm is suspended while the clinic figures out whether there's a risk from that donor.
So, where next for an industry that is already massively professionalized and technologically advanced? Arndal-Lauritzen told me that she anticipated the industry moving towards increased personalization, "so you could have an exclusive donor that was just for you." California Cryobank's Scott Brown spoke of maximizing genetic compatibility between donor and client. "From what we know about genetics, the ability to match an individual's genetic makeup to a donor could be the next thing in the industry. Now we can do additional testing if the client knows they are the carrier of a certain gene, we can match them to an appropriate donor to minimize future risk."
Another avenue some people go down is through the use of known donors—men who provide sperm, either for insemination through natural (i.e. sex) or non-natural means (artificial insemination), outside of a clinical context. I spoke to Ed Houben, known as "Papa Ed" to many of his 106 confirmed children (although he believes there are probably more), to get his take on being a known donor.
Houben, 42, started donating sperm back in 2002. He's received global press attention, in a large part due to the fact that he prefers (although he doesn't insist on it) to inseminate his women the "old fashioned" way. Women fly from all over the world—or in some cases, fly him out to them—and stay with him at his home over the insemination process. He boasts of having super-sperm and claims that his sperm count is 100 million, which basically means he never fires blanks.
I want children to know that they were a gift, and gifts are for free. No amount of money can pay for a life.
"I want to help women, so they don't feel like they have to stay in breaking-down [sic] relationships. It's getting harder for women to find a suitable partner. I don't accept payment, apart from my expenses, because in the long run I just think of what the children would think of it. I want children to know that they were a gift, and gifts are for free. No amount of money can pay for a life."
Not everyone is as altruistic, and the use of known donors can be problematic. Aside from legal claims that can arise when the law is vague around parental rights versus donor parentage, there are seriously shady operators out there. "One lesbian couple told me that the donor agreed to artificial insemination, but he wanted [them] to dress as French maids and clean the room whilst he masturbated," Houben said. "Another Dutch lesbian couple told me that they had artificial insemination with one donor which resulted in a child, but then he told them that if they wanted a sibling it would have to be the 'natural way,' which is essentially blackmail."
One thing is certain: Demand for donor sperm is only going to continue to increase. Whether more countries will follow the path laid by Denmark and the USA in terms of de-regulating the industry remains to be seen, although it is likely. But it seems fitting for Ole Schou, who pretty much single-handedly founded the Danish sperm industry, to have the final word.
"People feel betrayed that they can't find the sperm supply in their own country. Lawmakers need to listen to what people need and remove unnecessary regulation. Economically and politically, Western countries need to be having more children. We need to focus our policies on enabling us to have more children."
In other words, watch out for a Ryan Gosling or Ben Affleck baby near you.